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Windows 8's complexity tax shackles Microsoft

Gregg Keizer | Jan. 20, 2014
The new OS was meant to bring simpler times, but the dual-mode beast can't compete as computing changes, say analysts

Apple's choice in the war against complexity was to recognize the OS X should not be shoehorned into other devices; instead, it crafted the touch-based iOS as its standard bearer on first, iPhones, then iPads.

Microsoft tried to address the problem with a more radical solution: Offer the traditional, complex Windows and a new less-capable-but-simpler sidekick, originally dubbed "Metro," in one package. Windows 8 was the offspring of that attempt to keep one foot in the past while at the same time easing customers into a simpler software model for the future.

The desktop won't die easily
Analysts now contend that Microsoft's scheme not only didn't pan out but made Windows even more complex.

"Windows 8 was supposed to reduce complexity with more managed apps, it was supposed to signal the end of the Windows desktop," said Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst. "There was to be a long decline of the desktop, [but] now it looks like the desktop isn't going to be able to decline as Microsoft expected."

Silver was referring to the reaction by many long-time Windows customers to 8. They objected, often fiercely, to the attention paid to Metro and the simultaneous degrading of the traditional desktop, best illustrated by the removal of the iconic Start button and menu, and a forced path through Metro at each boot.

They wanted their "old" Windows back.

To a limited extent, Microsoft gave it to them with last fall's free Windows 8.1 update. And from recent reports, Microsoft's plan is to bend to their wishes even more in 2015.

"The idea was to put all that complexity and legacy support behind it by putting Metro in a separate box," said Silver, implying that the idea hasn't succeeded.

In a follow-up piece on Jan. 10, Thompson laid the blame for slumping PC shipments, which were down an historic 10% in 2013, right on Windows 8's doorstep. "Windows 82s increased complexity added a reason not to buy," said Thompson. That reason is atop others, including the fact that as PCs have become secondary devices, more consumers are willing to stick with what they have rather than spend money to upgrade a now "good enough" system.

The analysts' talk of "complexity" wasn't necessarily about discrete tasks' ease or difficulty — although there were elements of that — but more about the amount of effort that goes into using an operating system. The cognitive burden, sometimes called a "tax," necessary to accomplish tasks becomes greater in a complex OS. Put two completely different UIs and user experiences together, as did Microsoft, and the tax skyrockets.

"The biggest problem with the Modern UI was that it was a complete paradigm shift," said Miller. ("Modern" is another term for the Metro UI and mode in Windows 8.) "Everything we had trained people to do [on the desktop] went away. And there is no stellar app that is pulling people to the Modern platform, something that will make people want those devices and want to learn the Modern UI."


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